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Nuclear energy is not an option

Publication Date : 14-02-2014

 

Remember, the worst that can possibly happen, probably will happen.

Some years ago, I was a proponent of Malaysia embarking on a safe and secure Nuclear Energy Policy.

Like many other people, I was compelled by arguments that the depletion of our natural resources and the terrible environmental effects of the use of fossil fuels had left us with no alternative but to go nuclear.

Nuclear energy was touted as a “clean” and sustainable substitute.

Thus, when the government announced a national plan to go nuclear some three years ago, there was hardly a whimper of protest to be heard.

Everyone seemed to be persuaded that we had no choice if we wanted affordable energy that could sustain our modern and increasingly sophisticated lifestyles.

We have been told that, despite what happened at Three Mile Island in New York (1979) and later at Chernobyl (1986), nuclear power plants were essentially safe.

Clearly, they were and are not.

After what happened at Fukushima, Japan, where a tsunami on March 11, 2011 shut down electrical power and triggered a meltdown of the fuel rods, I no longer believe that nuclear power can be an option for us or for any other country.

All nuclear scientists believe in the theory of probability made popular by Professor Norman Rasmussen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

To appease the public, they will tell us that the chance of a particular accident is so improbable that the overall project should be considered “safe”. What, for example, is the probability of a plane crashing into the Petronas Twin Towers?

We can calculate this to an “acceptable degree” of accuracy such that the probability of any such thing occurring is so low that the public can occupy the offices in the Towers without fear. But probability is a theory; and a fickle thing.

In Fukushima, the scientists assumed it was highly improbable in a country like Japan (which had pioneered many earthquake countermeasures) that the power supply could be interrupted by an external event for a long period.

When they designed the Fukushi­ma plant, they assumed that the reactor could be sufficiently cooled and brought to a cold shutdown.

They thought that any scenario involving the catastrophic failure of power supply would be highly improbable.

They also assumed that a 14m tsunami wave was highly unlikely, because historically the highest tsunami wave along the east coast of Japan was 10m (which was the height of the Fukushima seawall).

We know the result of their assumptions.

Clearly, while the probability theory is useful in almost every facet of our lives, we cannot afford this approach when building nuclear plants or any other infrastructure whose failure can result in a massive loss of life.

If we, nonetheless, insist on depending on probability, the position we should adopt is this: the worst thing that can possibly happen, probably will happen.

The Fukushima meltdown took place in a modern industrialised country where rigorous and highly disciplined technical and scientific practices (particularly in engineering and physics) have long been a part of the national culture.

And yet, Japan is as fallible as the rest of us.

Nuclear power plants are only “probably” safe according to the standard of probability we apply.

In turn, these standards are determined by perfectly fallible human beings who cannot foresee every possible exigency.

We can build a plant that is hacker-proof, impervious to earthquakes, with multiple power redundancies and so forth – but then it gets hit by a meteorite, because we didn’t think that was probable, and we reduce Southeast Asia to a pile of radioactive rubble.

Fukushima was designed according to all current international standards.

Those standards failed and, today, a large part of the area can never be used for agriculture because the soil is contaminated.

Similarly, three decades after Chernobyl, there are still areas in southern Germany where people will not eat mushrooms because of radiation damage to the environment.

So, if you think electricity will be cheaper, “greener” and safer because of nuclear power, think again.

The clean-up costs are astronomical, as are insurance premiums, to say nothing of the cost and environmental impact of dealing with spent fuel rods and plants that have reached the end of their operating life-spans.

In Malaysia, we must also address the (high) probability of human error and failing infrastructure.

As we have seen time and again in our management of utilities and other facilities, our technical standards across the board leave a great deal to be desired.

To put it bluntly, a country that apparently cannot keep the roofs of major public buildings from collapsing has no business constructing and operating nuclear power plants.

We should instead invest in truly greener types of renewable power generation.

Denmark generates a quarter of its electrical power from wind.

Three German states use wind to supply 50% of their needs.

In Malaysia, there are also possibilities in the mass exploitation of solar power.

Indeed, Tenaga Nasional Berhad started acting as “collecting agent” for the Sustainable Energy Development Authority’s (Seda) Feed-in-Tariff in December 2011.

Under the scheme, domestic consumers of more than 300kWh pay 1.6% of their bills to Seda to fund renewable energy from sources such as biomass, biogas, small-hydro and solar power.

Individual house owners can theoretically sell the electricity they generate to Tenaga.

I say “theoretically” because this all involves a system of licences and quotas, and the solar quota was snapped up very quickly.

Why have we not seen the government promoting renewable energy with greater vigour?

Our reservoir of fossil fuel is depleting. From this position, we should embark on investments and research into non-nuclear energy production.

I hope our influential science adviser to the prime minister, Professor Dr Zakri Abdul Hamid, can do something about this. Zakri recently received the Zayed International Prize for his contributions to the environment, and I trust he will call on the prime minister to think again about nuclear power and to invest more on solar and wind energy.

Solar and wind power do have some environmental impact as well, but they are slight compared to coal, gas and nuclear plants.

Above all, we cannot afford any mistakes with nuclear power, for a meltdown will destroy the entire Southeast Asian region and put millions of lives and livelihoods at risk.

 

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